Starlings are not the first birds into our garden each morning. They sleep at least an hour later than smaller birds like Juncos and House Finches. Physics would indicate that it is harder for smaller birds to maintain body warmth in cold air because there is more surface area in relation to body mass. So the calorie expense of keeping a chickadee or junco warm is higher per gram of body weight than it would be for a starling or a roundish duck. When you start to consider the issue of keeping a crane or heron body warm with all that surface area and those long, exposed legs. Then the physics is beyond me, but these large, thin birds move slowly, deliberately, and can eat much larger quantities of whatever is available. They are not limited to tiny seeds and bits of suet like a Junco or chickadee.
Starlings can be at home in many habitats and are especially comfortable in manmade landscapes. They can work around your garden in the city, a large urban park, a farmer’s pasture, the cow yard at a dairy, the grocery store parking lot, landfills, marshes, orchards or vineyards. You may see them along the freeway’s edge or the lawns at an airport. They seem to be comfortable almost anywhere except dense forest or elevations above 6000 feet. They don’t like true desert but appear where there is irrigation, often dancing beneath the irrigation pivots as water rains down.
A starling is almost never alone. In Europe and America they form huge winter murmurations that have become a hit on Youtube. Starlings do almost everything in groups from sleeping to eating to bathing. This keeps them safer from predators– though I did find one eaten by a Cooper’s Hawk in our garden last month. They also share food discoveries rather than try to protect any find from other starlings. They successfully gang up on some woodpeckers and other competitors for food or nest holes. They are one of the neighborhood gangs that can force their will on smaller or singular birds when a resource is scarce. When food and space are plentiful they do not waste time on aggression. Unlike siskins, for example, they are perfectly content to share a puddle or pasture with Robins, blackbirds of all kinds, sparrows, meadowlarks, or whatever species happens to share the starlings’ taste in grub, or grubs.
Starlings are apt mimics. Their vocal range is impressive. Whistles, gurgles, clucks, melodic measures, mumbling—all are used where deemed appropriate by these speckled vocalists. A few weeks back I heard one giving the sharp call of a Jackdaw. Now these naturalized European Starlings here in America have not heard a Jackdaw in many starling generations. Yet somewhere in the birds’ DNA is encoded a set of tunes useful to mimics. Surely our starlings’ ancestors competed with Jackdaws around Neolithic stone monuments and castle keeps. The Jackdaw is a small but social and aggressive Corvid, also a cavity nester, loving crevices in manmade stone piles of all sorts. It would have been useful for starlings to be able to imitate this competitor. To native American birds the Jackdaw call must just seem exotic. Just this morning I heard a Golden Oriole song in our garden. Again, it was a starling doing what comes with its heredity. An Old World bird, the Golden Oriole’s song gave rise to its name; it’s a lilting, sweet whistle that says “orr—ee—ooool.” Though scarce in England this oriole overlaps with European Starlings in Germany, France, and neighboring nations of northern Europe.
Starlings are quick to investigate. I finally stuck tiny dowels into holes for perches onto my greasy suet logs. Within two minutes after I got back inside the starlings were on a log and using those dowel perches. A man appreciates an appreciative customer.
During warm months our town and nearby countryside must be a starling banquet. So my deal with the starlings is straightforward barter through the cold months. I give them suet, they give me knowledge and pleasure.Here are three starlings bathing in trickle of meltwater in the gutter of a city street near my home. Others of the flock were on nearby lawn with Robins, foraging where the snow had melted.On the log before I added the dowel perches: OTHER IMITATION HEARINGS, OR SIGHTINGS:
This from Zia Fukuda, a biologist in southern Oregon: “I heard a Swainson’s thrush that couldn’t have possibly been a Swainson’s thrush at this time of year. After listening to the “weep” call several times, it was finally followed by more typical starling calls. I’ve also been fooled into thinking I have California quail here, but alas, starlings again.”
Below, the Golden Oriole and the Jackdaw. Both are slightly larger in body than a Scrub-Jay. The Jackdaw is a colonial nester and does not migrate. The oriole is in an Old World family of birds with 29 species, none in America.